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Embedded: Three Days Behind The Scenes With Penn State Basketball

by on January 10, 2020 3:05 PM

WEDNESDAY NIGHT

"What is your job,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers shouts from across the film room.

“Make shots, coach,” a voice responds from inside a sweatshirt.

“What’s your job?” Chambers says, his gaze now focusing on star forward Lamar Stevens. “Everyone thinks they want your job until they’re in your shoes. It’s a tough job, a tough job. Make plays on the court, say the right things, make the right choices socially. It’s tough.”

Chambers now looks towards guard Jamari Wheeler.

“What is your job,” Chambers repeats.

“Be tough,” Wheeler says through his thick Florida accent.

“Be tough,” Chambers echoes contemplatively. “You’re Jamari f—king Wheeler.”

It has been nearly 24 hours since Penn State’s 72-61 loss to Rutgers in front of a thunderous New Jersey crowd. Losing in the Big Ten will happen. The Nittany Lions are bound to be on the wrong end of their fair share this season, but the Tuesday night defeat was as much a product of an identity loss as it was Rutgers’ own play.

Penn State was beat on the glass, giving up offensive rebounds at all the wrong moments, outworked and out-hustled at the kind of game the Nittany Lions take pride in. Defense and rebounding are the pillars of any good team, but the foundation of Penn State’s rise to prominence over the past several seasons. You might be more talented than the Nittany Lions, but you won’t outwork them. In 2020, chances are you might not be winning the talent battle either.

All of that irks Chambers in the shadow of a loss, he walks the hallways of the Bryce Jordan Center, papers in hand, with the kind of energy that makes people move out of the way. He’s dressed for practice even though they aren’t practicing today. He’s champing at the bit to get back out there. The Nittany Lions are 12-3 and in the thick of contention for an NCAA Tournament berth, and to a certain extent the Big Ten regular season title race. They’re talented, capable and not short of potential. It would be one thing if this team was like many of Chambers’ earlier rosters, well intended but facing a talent gap against the rest of the league. But these are not your normal Nittany Lions and their skill and potential is as good as any in a jam-packed conference.

Chambers has something with this bunch, and that makes him all the more annoyed by the performance. No film session following a loss is fun, but not all losses are created equal. Minutes earlier, Chambers steps into a side room to collect himself before addressing his team. They are quiet, the music that had been playing has since silenced. They know what’s next.

“Come up to the board, John,” Chambers says to junior big man John Harrar. For the next 10 minutes the team generates a list of reasons why they lost. Complacency, effort, energy, pace. There are 11 things in total that make the cut as Harrar writes them down on the whiteboard. The word ‘poison’ is the last, a collection of ideas from selfishness, mindset and social media. Chambers, like any coach in America, hates social media.

“It’s time to put the walls up,” Chambers says, motioning with his hands.

For the next 15 minutes the lights are dimmed as film races out of the projector above their heads. Box outs, open shots, defensive switches, energy and effort. Everything is on the table and nobody is avoiding the accountability that comes in the wake of defeat as Chambers and his staff show clip after clip, marinating their team in all of it.

But as the screen pulls back into the ceiling, Chambers tells them what every coach says after a session like that. The film is in the past, the game is in the past, there is practice tomorrow and a game to play this weekend.

“Everything is correctable,” Chambers says, feeding his team a bit of positivity and hope after a tough hour of criticism and introspection.

They huddle, arms raised together. It breaks and each make their way out into the night, the sun already set on the day and a game the Nittany Lions are hoping to never think about again.

THURSDAY:

There is a space heater next to the desk in Pat Chambers’ office at the southwest corner of the Bryce Jordan Center. It’s hard to imagine that he really needs it; there is so much movement in the basketball wing early in the morning. Chambers is constantly in motion, and assistants Jim Ferry, Ross Condon and Keith Urgo are pulling together papers and coffee ahead of a 9:15 meeting. The place practically warms itself by virtue of all the action.

But as they settle into their chairs, the room calms a bit. It’s time to get to work. The blinds are drawn halfway down the large window behind Chambers, but the sun is still finding its way through the cracks, piercing the frigid air, Mount Nittany in the distance encased in the early morning frost.

The point of the meeting is to go over the practice plan for the day. Much of it has already been mapped out — this isn’t their first rodeo as a staff after all. In fact, Thursday's practice marks the 58th of this 2019-20 cycle. The practice sheet lists drills and concepts generally separated by four-minute increments, but above all else are two simple words: Refocus, identity.

A lot of things go unsaid in meetings like these but the general thrust of today’s work is as much about habits and fundamentals as it is an eventual plan to beat Wisconsin. Chambers has watched about half the film from Illinois' win over the Badgers the night before, but first it’s about getting his own team refocused on the little things. He goes over a few ideas with his staff, juggling a handful of Wisconsin statistics through his head and how to counteract them. They’re confident in their approach, but today will be a teaching day, and like all things in sports, a plan is only as good as the team's ability to execute it. And a team's ability to execute is only as good as a coach's ability to teach.

As the group prepares to disperse, Chambers notes a change: Penn State will practice on the main court today, a departure from the usual routine.

“Let’s get in our gym,” Chambers says. “Let’s see some shots go in.”

Fifteen minutes later the sound of sneakers squeaking on the court nearly matches the pounding bass of Drake and Meek Mill. There is some amount of symbolism here, the Toronto native pairing his talents with a rapper from Philadelphia, the two better together than on their own even in the wake of conflict. Still not long removed from Wednesday evening’s passionate and introspective film session, the Nittany Lions are back on the court, better together than as individuals.

Practice is spirited and even with the assistance of a literal crutch Chambers watches over each player with an almost intimidating focus. He is supportive when the moment demands it, fiery when a mistake requires a correction. There are breaks, but there is an intensity about how Penn State’s 70-some minute session unfolds. This team is talented and deep, and that means if you aren’t on your game, someone else will take your place. Nobody is safe, at least not from being held accountable.

“Find a body,” Chambers shouts. For all their strengths the Nittany Lions have been a surprisingly average team on the defensive glass. Chambers’ slogan of the day is as much about mentality as scheme. Find someone and box them out. Do that, and you’ll get the rebound. Get rebounds and you win.

By the midway point of practice the competition is flowing, a communication-heavy form of defense taking on an eager motion offense. Every rep is a battle between players and their own mental fortitude. Remember your switches, don’t forget your assignments, make your shots, get a rebound.  Whistles blow, mistakes are corrected by players and coaches alike. Tempers flare, but by the end of it all, the Nittany Lions are better for it. The intensity paid off, the competition made them better. There is a TV behind one of the baskets that shows practice rep replays nearly in real-time. Want to see something again, you can. Want to debate the merits of a foul, well you can do that too, but move on.

“I’ll get another rep for sure,” Harrar bellows with a kind of primal hunger during a particularly active drill.

As the team makes its way toward another film session, Chambers appears ever so slightly satisfied for the first time since returning from New Jersey. It’s not that a coach is ever happy or ever even really satisfied, but his team responded, competed and got better. That was how practice was supposed to go.

In the film room players are breaking down the practice they just had, Chambers and assistants quizzing them on the good and the bad of each rep as it plays on the screen. It’s a test but it’s also reinforcing teaching points. In a sense, Penn State is just practicing again, this time between the ears.

Before the team heads to lunch Chambers has players stand and tell the rest of the team what they learned.

“Close out with high hands,” one says.

“Get to your defensive (location),” another adds.

“Find a body,” makes its appearance.

The room continues listing off lessons, and then they eat.

It’s a striking moment relative to the film session they had less than 24 hours ago. This one wasn’t as much about mistakes. It was about steps forward. This one wasn’t about all the things that went wrong, it was about what you can do to get better. If Wednesday afternoon was a chance to soak in what the Nittany Lions shouldn’t do, Thursday was a lesson in how to avoid making the same mistakes twice. If Wednesday was tough love, Thursday was encouragement.

Of course the work never really stops. Chambers and his staff are looking at laptops over lunch, then it’s a staff meeting as various parts of the program away from the court meet to brief everyone on what’s coming up down the road. Ticket sales, charity events, alumni day, senior night and of course, grades.

Then it’s a media session with three reporters and two TV stations. All the while Chambers echoes what he saw just over an hour ago: a good practice.

There’s even more to do: a Coaches Vs Cancer video to film, a radio show to attend. And don’t forget the second half of that Wisconsin game to watch.

The good news for Penn State is it’s only Thursday, and this week has gone better and better as the days have gone along.

FRIDAY:

“Does that cost more or less?” Chambers says on Friday morning as he goes over a recruiting itinerary with Urgo. 

“It’s about the same,” Urgo says.

Things aren’t quite as frantic Friday morning as Penn State staff prepares for one of the last meetings of the week. Today is yet another chance to button down on the details, but also the first real day focused on Wisconsin itself. For the next 15 minutes or so Chambers bounces end-of-game situation plays off of Ferry. They mostly agree — the list of options is seemingly endless, but there are three to six that make the most sense.

“We have to dictate the pace,” Chambers says.

Wisconsin is an odd program to play. The Badgers are traditionally near impossible to beat in Madison and are notorious for keeping opponents at arms length on the road. You may never be down by more than 10 to the Badgers, but you may never get closer than five.

Penn State has lost 12-straight against Wisconsin, despite nearly knocking off the Badgers last season on the road and falling by a single point against them in 2017 at the Bryce Jordan Center. A lot has changed over the years between these two teams that makes records like this a little meaningless. For one, Wisconsin is no longer coached by longtime head man Bo Ryan, now led by Ryan disciple Greg Gard. Equally true, the Badgers have seemingly lost a step in 2019 while Penn State finds itself in the best position it has been in a decade.

So there is history, but also context.

Not long after the meeting the Nittany Lions are back in the main gym for one final practice before Saturday’s game. There is a sluggish start to things, but Chambers doesn’t let it last, chastising his stars from the outset for their approach. Chambers gets after Stevens for a weak closeout. The senior glares and Chambers fires back.

“Buy in,” he shouts.

Of course nothing about this scene is all that out of the ordinary across gyms in every corner of the country. Coaches yell, players glare and then they all hug it out.

And of course there is a benefit to all the emotion, because, after all, coaches rarely do things without a reason.

The exchange seems to light a fire under Stevens, who is a leader on the floor more with his play than loud demonstrative acts. But Stevens, one of the more complete players to dress at Penn State, flips a switch. He pounds the glass, flexes his shooting range in drills. He encourages his younger counterparts. He glides through practice and finds Mike Watkins returning from the locker room to talk about something. If practice can occasionally open the door for complacency and boredom for veteran players, Stevens appears to reawaken as the minutes tick on. He looks the part a star closing in on 24 hours before his next game. The team follows suite and its another competitive practice and at the pace Chambers wants.

The Nittany Lions appear ready to respond.

In the coming hours Penn State will end the process once again watching film, this time of Wisconsin. There is an app on each player’s phone that has a scouting report and film to watch on their own time. There is a written test, verbal quizzing and a quasi day-of-game exercise to get all the details down. Opposing players are ID’d in various forms, most importantly “shooter.” If you mess up, leave somebody else open, but never leave a shooter by himself.

By the time Saturday comes players will have spoken, written, played and watched nearly every aspect of their offense and defensive plan. The idea — as Condon noted as he watched practice unfold — however a player might learn, they will have digested everything in the form that fits them best.

It’s an incredible process to watch unfold over the span of three days, and a process that repeats itself over and over. Next time before a trip to Minnesota, then again before hosting Ohio State. So on and so on. Sometimes they will have a week to prepare, other times just a day or two. It’s a constantly changing equation trying to generate the same result.

Each time there will be a new scouting report to remember, an assignment to memorize and habits to sharpen.

And each time it will start where it all began, back in the film room reflecting on what went right, what went wrong, and what happens next.

This group will do the cycle at least 16 more times. No wonder everyone is tired at the end of the year.

“Let’s let them go home and get some rest,” Chambers tells his staff. “We’ll come back and finish up with film.”



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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